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Newsline - November 22, 2006

Italian security expert Mario Scaramella, who dined with former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London on November 1, said in Rome on November 21 that he showed Litvinenko e-mails that suggested that both men had been targeted for death by Moscow, "The Washington Post" and Britain's "The Times" reported on November 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and 21, 2006). Litvinenko, who became seriously ill later on November 1, reportedly discounted the threat. Also on November 21, London doctors said that they have now ruled out the possibility that Litvinenko was poisoned with thallium, as had been previously suggested, international media reported. After the latest round of medical tests, physician Amit Nathwani told reporters that "it is possible we may never find out" what caused Litvinenko's debilitating illness, for which he remains in intensive care. John Henry, a toxicologist hired by the Litvinenko family, suggested he may have been poisoned with an unspecified "radioactive substance" that would require treatment with a bone-marrow transplant. PM

Sergei Ivanov, who is a spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), told Reuters in Moscow on November 21 that his agency "has no involvement with Aleksandr Litvinenko's health condition.... What is important is the state of relations between Great Britain and Russia, and I doubt that any politician would take a step to endanger those relations by taking action against a person like Litvinenko." Ivanov added that he wishes Litvinenko, whom he described as "a rather young man of some 40 or so years, a speedy recovery. The search for answers to what has happened, what caused the poisoning, should be carried out in London." State Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist) recalled on November 20 that the FSB is allowed to target foreigners outside Russia under legislation passed in 2006 that permits intelligence operations abroad in the pursuit of terrorists, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 21. The Kremlin has accused Litvinenko's friend Boris Berezovsky of backing Chechen terrorists. Ilyukhin said that "after we adopted the bill [in March] that allows the deployment of special services abroad to fight terrorism, I would not rule out that our guys pulled this off." He also noted that the special services have often used poisons. PM

In an article published in the November 22 edition of Britain's "Financial Times," Vladimir Putin wrote that some in Europe are trying to fit EU-Russian relations into the "obsolete model of 'friend or foe,'" but there is nothing to fear from growing interdependence. Putin did not name names, but Poland is currently blocking consensus in the EU on a mandate for talks with Russia on a new strategic partnership. Poland, which is backed by Lithuania, wants Russia to first end or promise to end a ban on Polish food imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16 and 21, 2006). On November 21, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Poland will drop a threatened veto on the talks if the EU meets conditions Warsaw has set out in a letter to the Finnish EU Presidency, news agencies reported. Poland insists that Moscow treat it as it does other members of the EU. Russia has shown no indication of modifying its position. EU officials are hoping to start talks on the new EU-Russian cooperation pact at a summit in Helsinki on November 24. PM

President Putin told 700 senior law enforcement officials on November 21 that he will launch an offensive against corruption, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 22. He argued that bureaucrats should not moonlight, and that the State Duma must be "corruption-proof." Putin added that he wants new legislation to enable civil servants and their families to be "monitored." Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika recently warned of flourishing organized crime in the oil and gas sector and complained that investigators focus their attention on small businesses while leaving big companies alone. Recent studies by the World Bank and the nongovernmental organization Transparency International place corruption in Russia on a level with that in some African countries, such as Swaziland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18 and 25, and November 8, 2006). In related news, "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported on November 22 on a scandal centered on the Federal Compulsory Medical Insurance Fund, which is managed by the Health Care and Social Development Ministry. The imbroglio reportedly involves not only bribes and kickbacks for officials and bureaucrats, but also a sum of nearly $1 billion that has not been accounted for. PM

Vladislav Surkov, who is one of several deputy heads of the Kremlin's administration and an exponent of the theory of "sovereign democracy," defended that concept in the November 20 issue of the weekly "Ekspert" against critics who charge that any adjectives placed on the word democracy make it something less than real democracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24 and 26, August 31, and September 1, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," August 7, 2006). Surkov argued in an article entitled "Nationalizing The Future" that "democracy is not static but a process that touches upon various areas of life. And the process we are talking about was not set in motion five minutes ago. An emphasis on different components of the democratic process is inevitable and necessary in each historic time and space. Supporting sovereignty without compromising democracy, and being open at the same time without losing one's identity, is not an easy task for beginners." He chided "so-called intellectuals...who think the sun rises in the West." Surkov argued that Russia is menaced by "fringe alliances of ex-civil servants, practicing neo-Nazis, and fugitive oligarchs, encouraged by visiting [Western] diplomats.... But they will never subdue [Russian society] as long as it holds sovereignty as a value." PM

Kremlin official Surkov argued in the November 20 issue of the weekly "Ekspert" that Russia cannot afford to be "complacent." It must make sure that its vast amounts of natural resources and nuclear weapons are used for its own, and not foreign benefit. The past has been dominated by brutality, corruption, sloth, and "Soviet slavery." But "this is the first time in a millennium that our society is free.... This is the first time in history that Russia has a chance to recover from the chronic illness of spasmodic (revolutionary-reactionary) development." Surkov affirmed that "democracy did away with poverty, separatism, public dismay, and legal chaos. It stopped disintegration of the army and state apparatus. It elbowed out oligarchy, it attacked international terrorism, it boosted the economy. It is working." He further argued that "the project of sovereign democracy is one of those that stipulate a future for Russia, more importantly, a distinctly national future. But the [nationalist] charlatans who tout the advantages of ethnic isolation are actually out to hustle Russians out of multiethnic Russia. Where to? To a 'Russian republic' within the borders of early Muscovy?" He argues that "President Putin constantly reminds us that it is modernization of the country that is on the agenda.... We must develop a culture of innovation. We must convert an economy that depends on raw materials exports into an intellectual economy [and join] the community of creative nations that shape history." PM

The news agency RIA Novosti argued on November 20 that Kremlin ideologue Surkov's article "Nationalizing The Future" draws attention to the threat that xenophobia presents to Russia. The daily "Vedomosti," however, stressed on November 21 that Surkov is seeking to ensure that his theory does not just become enshrined in the next electoral program of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, but remains a legacy for President Putin's successor. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 21 quoted comments on Surkov's article by several public figures, some of whom praised him as "profound," while others remained critical, saying that his arguments serve only to give additional weight to the views of his opponents. PM

President Putin and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet told a joint news conference in Hanoi on November 20 that bilateral economic relations are flourishing, Russian news agencies reported. Putin said that "regarding the investment we are speaking about, if the projects come to fruition, they will amount to billions of dollars' worth of [Russian] investment in Vietnam's economy." Triet responded that "the economic relationship is growing. Vietnam welcomes all Russian businesses, enterprises, and groups [that want] to invest heavily in Vietnam." Cooperation is developing most intensely in the energy field. Putin called for "expanding it into the atomic-energy sector," but did not elaborate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). Also on November 20, representatives of Gazprom and Petrovietnam signed agreements on developing Vietnam's gas infrastructure and offshore fields. The close Moscow-Hanoi alliance of the Cold War years has long become history, but Vietnam has numerous Soviet-trained professionals in a variety of fields, hopes for help in exploiting offshore oil deposits, and needs friends to act as a counterweight to China. PM

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, formally unveiled on November 21 an appeal to UN member states adopted on October 4 by the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester, Caucasus Press reported. That appeal, which is available on the Abkhaz website and was signed by the foreign ministers of the three republics in question, condemned the initiative by GUAM member states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) to try to persuade the UN General Assembly to include on its agenda a debate on the so-called frozen conflicts on their territory. It argued that the decision to raise the issue with the UN General Assembly, rather than the UN Security Council, reflects a desire to enlist support for their bid to use force "to quash the legitimate aspiration of our peoples to live in...peace and equality." It noted Russia's role in bringing to an end what it termed "aggressive wars of a colonial character" unleashed by the authorities of Georgia and Moldova, and accused Georgia of violating the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe by engaging in an unprecedented arms buildup. Finally, the statement argued that any debate on the so-called frozen conflicts should not take place in the absence of representatives of the unrecognized republics. LF

The Council of Deputies of Arkhangelsk Oblast ratified in two successive readings on November 21 the Treaty between the Organs of State Power of Arkhangelsk Oblast and Nenets Autonomous Okrug that formalizes the division of powers between those two federation subjects and the allocation of budget resources between them for the period 2007-08, reported on November 22. The Nenets AO authorities will retain their powers, but under an agreement signed in St. Petersburg on November 15 by Arkhangelsk Oblast Governor Nikolai Kiselyov and Nenets AO administration head Valery Potapenko after what Kiselyov termed protracted and agonizing wrangling, the Nenets AO must transfer 50 percent of the taxes levied on the first 8.7 billion rubles ($327 million) of revenues to Arkhangelsk, and 70 percent of taxes on revenues in excess of that sum. Arkhangelsk Deputy Governor Yury Shevelev predicted on November 16 that the Nenets AO Council of Deputies would be the first to ratify the treaty, reported, but that body's Deputy Chairman Ivan Ledkov told the same agency on November 17 that the Nenets Council of Deputies has not yet voted on the draft treaty because it has not received the text from the okrug administration. Ledkov said the vote will take place after the treaty's ratification by Arkhangelsk. LF

The French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ambassadors Bernard Fassier and Yury Merzlyakov, met in Yerevan on November 21 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Merzlyakov told journalists on November 22 that the talks were "rich in content and effective," and that Kocharian agreed in principle to a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev next week on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Minsk to continue their talks on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict. Oskanian told RFE/RL on November 15 that during their talks in Brussels the previous day, he and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made "a small step forward" in terms of coming closer to reaching "general points of agreement" with regard to "additional elements" unveiled by the Minsk group co-chairs and discussed by the two foreign ministers during their talks in Moscow and Paris last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 24, 2006). Oskanian added that the co-chairs would visit Yerevan and Baku the following week to propose that the two presidents meet in Minsk, and that it was up to Kocharian and Aliyev to decide whether or not to accept that invitation. Fassier and Merzlyakov were scheduled to meet with Aliyev in Baku on November 22. In an interview with on November 20, former Azerbaijani presidential foreign-policy adviser Vafa Quluzade said any meeting between the two presidents at this juncture would be "senseless" given the fundamental differences between their respective negotiating positions. Also on November 21, Ashot Ghoulian, parliament speaker of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), told RFE/RL that NKR President Arkady Ghukasian, who is currently visiting the United States, will meet "within days" with the U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman, Matthew Bryza. LF

Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has rejected as "preposterous" recent Georgian statements making approval of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization contingent on establishing Georgian control over allegedly illegal customs posts on the borders between the Russian Federation and Abkhazia and the similarly unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on November 21, citing RIA Novosti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 13, 14, and 21, 2006). "We will never allow Georgian customs officers to take positions on the [river] Psou, and I think that Russia will support us," Shamba said. LF

The international rating agency Standard and Poor's revised its outlook for Georgia on November 21 from "positive" to "stable" in light of the growth of geopolitical risks caused by the recent crisis in Georgian-Russian relations, Caucasus Press reported. The agency said that trend could negatively affect liquidity indices, economic-growth rates, and investors' attitudes. At the same time, Standard and Poor's left unchanged Georgia's sovereign B+ rating, a decision that Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said on November 22 proves the success of the reforms Georgia embarked on two years ago. LF

Aleksi Alekishvili told the Georgian parliament on November 21 that the embargo imposed on Georgia by Russia earlier this year will reduce economic growth in 2007 by a maximum of between 2.5 and 2.8 percent, Caucasus Press reported. He explained that this estimate represents a "worst-case scenario" encompassing increased gas prices, and that he anticipates Georgia's GDP in 2007 will reach 16 billion laris ($9.1 billion), an increase over 2006 of some 7.5 percent. On November 1, Georgian National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze told journalists that GDP growth this year will be 8 percent, rather than the anticipated 10 percent, due to a combination of factors including the Russian economic blockade and the rise in world oil prices and those of selected other commodities, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tynychbek Tabyldiev announced on November 21 that the World Bank will allocate $26.9 million to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, news agency reported. Tabyldiev noted that the money will be split equally between government institutions and nongovernmental organizations. "In the past, each country fought AIDS on its own. Now we'll unite because AIDS isn't just a disease, it's a socioeconomic problem," Tabyldiev said. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev met with Tony Blair in London on November 21, Kazinform reported. Their talks focused on economic cooperation and new oil and gas pipelines linking Kazakhstan to Europe, "The Guardian" reported. Blair called Kazakhstan a country "that, by being prepared to open up its economy, has achieved significant advance," adding, "I would like to see Britain be a leading partner of Kazakhstan in that endeavor, not just for trade and economic reasons but for political ones, too." Queried by journalists about the hit movie by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the character of a boorish journalist supposedly from Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev joked that "any publicity is good publicity," AP reported. DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev told law-enforcement professionals in Bishek on November 21 that the crime situation in Kyrgyzstan remains serious, "During the first nine months of this year, there were 483 crimes per 100,000 people, and more than 500 in Bishkek and Issykkul and Chuy provinces," Bakiev said. He said more attention should be paid to youth crime, Kabar reported. "More than half of the crimes in the country are committed by individuals under 30 years of age, and young people account for around 75 percent of drug users," Bakiev said. DK

The trial of two men accused of killing Major General Hakimsho Hofizov, director of the Defense Ministry's Military Institute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2006), has begun in Tajikistan's Supreme Court, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on November 21. Two residents of Khatlon Province -- Komiljon Huseynov and Komiljon Botirov -- are charged with the killing. Judge Shavkat Abdulkhayrov said an investigation revealed that the men are supporters of rebel Colonel Mahmud Khudoyberdiyev, who masterminded two coup attempts in the 1990s. DK

Rahmatullo Zoyirov, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, has filed a complaint with Tajikistan's Supreme Court disputing the legitimacy of the November 6 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on November 21. Zoyirov told RFE/RL that incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov, who was reelected with nearly 80 percent of the vote, did not have the constitutional right to run a third time. DK

Saparmurat Niyazov on November 21 authorized the signing of a three-year deal to allow a Chinese energy giant to explore for natural gas in eastern Turkmenistan, and RFE/RL reported. Niyazov's signature should clear the way for state-run geological company Turkmengeologiya to complete a contract with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) concerning the Gunorta Yoloten natural-gas field in the Mary Region. State-controlled Turkmen media say the contract is estimated to be worth nearly $152 million. Turkmenistan is due to build a natural gas pipeline to China by 2009 and has sought to increase its capacity dramatically to supply the eastern, Russian, and European markets. CNPC is China's largest producer and supplier of crude oil and natural gas, with major refining and petrochemical operations. DK

The opposition Birlik party has applied for registration with Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry for the third time in two years, reported on November 21, quoting the unregistered party's general-secretary, Vasila Inoyatova. Inoyatova said that if the current application is unsuccessful, the party will appeal to the country's Supreme Court. Inoyatova noted that the party's registration could improve Uzbekistan's image in the international arena. DK

The UN General Assembly's human rights committee on November 20 voted 74 to 69 with 24 abstentions to take no action on a U.S.-backed resolution criticizing Uzbekistan for human rights violations, AP reported. The report noted that developing countries spoke out against the practice of targeting specific states for rights violations. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton commented on the resolution's failure, "It's obviously a disappointment for us." DK

Uzbekistan's Constitutional Court ruled on November 20 that foreign investors cannot take property disputes in Uzbekistan to international arbitration, reported the next day. The court found that Uzbek law does not presume consent to international arbitration. In commentary on, independent journalist Sergei Yezhkov noted that a number of large international investors are preparing to take disputes in Uzbekistan to international arbitration. Foreign companies that have encountered difficulties in Uzbekistan include Newmont Mining and Oxus Gold (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3 and 27, 2006). DK

Ivan Danchanka, head of the Belarusian Food Industry Concern, complained to journalists in Minsk on November 21 that the Russian Customs Service is blocking Belarusian sugar exports to Russia for "unclear reasons," Belapan reported. Also on November 21, Belarusian Railways spokeswoman Tatsyana Bondarava said that more than 350 railway cars loaded with Belarusian sugar are standing idle in Russia and Belarus because of the blockade. According to Russian media, Russian sugar producers accuse Belarus of covertly exporting sugar made from imported raw cane sugar instead of the product refined from domestic sugar beets. Belarus is exempt from paying duty on the export of domestically refined sugar to Russia, whereas sugar made from imported raw cane sugar should be subject to duty of $340 per ton. In addition, Belarusian sugar, which is subsidized by the government, is $50 cheaper per ton than Russian sugar. According to some estimates, because of such unfair trade practices on the part of Belarus, the Russian sugar industry's losses between 2002 and 2005 amounted to more $500 million. JM

Ian Boag, head of the Kyiv-based Delegation of the European Commission to Ukraine and Belarus, told journalists in Minsk on November 21 that the European Union has never considered imposing politically motivated economic sanctions against Belarus, Belapan reported. Boag was commenting on discussions earlier this year in the European Commission to temporarily suspend benefits for Belarus under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006). Those discussions were terminated after some EU members spoke against such a measure. According to Boag, one of the conditions for enjoying the GSP benefits is the appropriate treatment of trade unions and their rights. "If those matters are not correctly treated, the GSP benefits can be temporarily withdrawn.... But this is a purely objective judgment; it is not a political judgment. It is not an economic sanction based on a political judgment," he argued. Boag visited Minsk to officially present the EU's offer of economic and other incentives to Belarus in exchange for progress toward democratization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). JM

Viktor Yushchenko said in an interview with three nationwide television channels on November 21 that he wants political leaders to discuss possible amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution in roundtable talks. "There is something wrong in what has been happening in the country over the past months. The country systematically suffers relapses, which may cost very dearly with years. The authorities often lack will, and the president lacks leverage to resolve topical issues," Yushchenko said. "Maybe we should gather at a roundtable, maybe we should initiate changes to the constitution and, by consensus, remove these problems," he added. According to Yushchenko, the constitution currently in force does not ensure "a balance of stability" between the president and the government and therefore "needs improvement." JM

President Yushchenko also said in his television interview on November 21 that one of his goals is to consolidate the country's democratic forces around a "new political project." "I would like to see consolidation, [I would like] Our Ukraine and other political forces to realize that they should become basic players in democracy," he said. Yushchenko noted that there already is a leader of such a potential political union. "But if you want me to pronounce a name, I would say the following: Today we should discuss principles and procedures, while the confirmation of the leader should take place in the final stage of this electoral process. And this will take place at a congress," Yushchenko added. JM

President Yushchenko said in his television interview on November 21 that he wants to invite those involved in the 2004 Orange Revolution to a party at the presidential place on November 22 in order to celebrate the event's second anniversary. "I would like to invite all those involved in the events that took place on the Ukrainian Maydan [Independence Square in Kyiv], first of all, my blood brothers from different political forces," Yushchenko said. According to the presidential press service, Yushchenko has invited Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, his main rival in the 2004 presidential election, as well as cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats, and public figures to the presidential palace to mark the Orange Revolution anniversary. Earlier, Yushchenko pledged to celebrate the anniversary with his associates and allies on Independence Square, where several political parties are to hold a rally on November 22. Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's staunchest ally in the Orange Revolution, is currently in Brussels and is not expected to appear at the celebrations in either the presidential palace or on Independence Square. JM

A Serbian government commission for missing persons announced on November 21 that the bodies of 63 unidentified victims from the former Yugoslavia's wars will be exhumed from two Belgrade graveyards, AP and UPI reported the same day. According to the commission, the 63 bodies floated down the Danube and Sava rivers from the direction of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and were later buried in unmarked graves. They are believed to be the remains of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian victims from the series of wars from 1991-95 following Yugoslavia's breakup. The commission said the process of identifying the victims and turning the remains over to relatives could be completed by the end of 2007. Forensic experts from the three countries and officials from international organizations will also attend the exhumation. BW

U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt said on November 21 that UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari will present his final-status proposal for Kosova just weeks after Serbia's January 21 general elections, B92 reported. "After the postponement, this means right after the elections, several days, a week or two, but soon after the elections, the two sides will be presented with Mr. Ahtisaari's proposal," Polt said. "After that we wish to quickly continue towards the completion of the process." Polt added that both sides will be expected to abide by the settlement. "Belgrade will have to live with the results of the Kosovo agreement, as will Pristina," he said. "Both sides can choose to continue resistance against it, fight against it, and live in constant animosity towards such an agreement. If Belgrade rejects the reached agreement for Kosovo and says that they will resist it, I would like to know if the people of Serbia really want that kind of a future," Polt added. BW

Also on November 21, Polt said preserving "territorial integrity," a common Serbian argument for holding on to Kosova, is not a central issue in the status discussions, B92 reported the same day. "Should we protect the territorial integrity of every regime that chooses to kill its own citizens?" Polt asked. "A violent past exists in Kosovo and we cannot forget who started that past violence in the 1990s. It was the Milosevic regime," he added. "Of course there could be violence as a result of the agreement. I think that it would be a great mistake for whatever group starts the violence, because it will not be tolerated by the international community," Polt said. BW

A bomb exploded on November 21 in a primary school in the Kosova village of Veliko Ropotovo, B92 and FoNet reported the same day. Gojko Ilic, the principal of the Trajko Peric School, said the explosion occurred when a school employee lit a fire in the furnace in order to heat a classroom. "Luckily, the children were not there. When we cleaned up the damage, we found the remains of an M50 bomb," Ilic said. Nobody was injured in the blast. Approximately 160 ethnic Serbian children attend the school. The Kosovo Police Service and United Nations Mission in Kosovo are investigating the incident. BW

Leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina marked the 11th anniversary of the 1995 Dayton peace accords in Sarajevo on November 21 in a ceremony with international officials, B92 and AKI reported the same day. The ceremony was attended by the three members of Bosnia's collective presidency -- Serbian member Nebojsa Radmanovic, Muslim member Haris Silajdzic, and Croatian member Ivo Komsic -- and the ambassadors of leading Western countries. BW

Electoral authorities in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have rejected a local journalist's bid to run against the region's current authoritarian president, Igor Smirnov, AP reported on November 21. Andrei Safonov, a fierce critic of Smirnov, tried to register as a candidate in the December 10 presidential election. The head of the Transdniestrian Election Commission, Pyotr Denisenko, said Safonov was denied registration because more than 20 percent of the 9,436 signatures he presented were falsified, according to a report by Transdniester's official Olivia Press news agency. To have their names on the ballot, candidates must collect over 9,000 signatures. Safonov called the rejection a "political vendetta," adding that he is the only true opposition candidate to Smirnov. Smirnov announced his decision to seek a fourth term as president on November 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2006). In addition to Smirnov, the commission has approved two other candidates: businessman Pyotr Tomaily, an independent; and Communist Party leader Natalia Bondarenko. BW

Croatian President Stjepan Mesic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prague on November 14 that the destruction of the Croatian Danube port town of Vukovar 15 years ago was part of then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's plans to establish a Greater Serbia by force. The big losers in Milosevic's wars, Mesic argued, were nonetheless the Serbs themselves.

Mesic argued that Milosevic thought in 1991 that he could "fool the world" into thinking he was determined to preserve the Yugoslav state when, in reality, he was trying to expand Serbia's boundaries into neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. "His goal was to establish a Greater Serbia," Mesic said.

In doing so, Milosevic tricked Serbian minorities outside Serbia by telling them he would not leave them outside Serbia's frontiers, and he led some of them to believe they would have a privileged status in his new state. In the end, however, all this came to nothing. Even his former allies in Montenegro deserted him and have now formed their own independent state.

Mesic said he is not sure the time is now ripe for him to invite to Vukovar his Serbian counterpart, Boris Tadic, but added that "it would be a good [idea]."

He stressed that what happened in Vukovar was "a big crime, even a crime of genocide." To the extent that people recall what happened in Vukovar and honor the victims, they have taken one more step toward ensuring that something like the destruction of that town "will never happen again," he said.

Mesic said the time has come to resolve the question of Kosova's status because the current "status quo cannot remain in the long run." It also seems to Mesic unreasonable to expect the issue to be resolved by direct talks between Prishtina and Belgrade, since Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority wants only independence, to which the Serbs will never agree. Consequently, Mesic told RFE/RL, "the international community has to help."

Like many observers, Mesic argues that the most likely outcome is that Kosova will become independent, but on the condition that it observes "those standards [of conduct] that apply in Europe."

He identifies these principles as respect for "civil rights, multiparty political pluralism, protection of national minorities, freedom of the media, functioning [state] institutions, the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and protection for religious and historical monuments."

He added that the Kosovars will also probably be asked to guarantee that they will not seek to form a "Greater Albania," which, however, is not seriously sought by any leading Kosovar or Albanian political party.

Mesic cautioned against hasty judgments regarding Zeljko Komsic, the new Croatian representative on the Bosnian tripartite Presidency. Mesic noted that many Croats have suggested that Komsic might not "defend Croatian interests" because he does not belong to a nationalist party -- he is a social democrat -- and because he fought in the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than in the mainly Herzegovinian Croatian Defense Council (HVO) during the 1992-95 conflict.

"What do people expect?" Mesic asked rhetorically. "That he should have served in the Army of the Republika Srpska? It is quite normal that one should have fought for Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Mesic argued, moreover, that Bosnia's problem is that it needs to form a functioning state and get away from a tendency of its two constituent entities to behave as though they were states. "They're not," he said starkly.

Mesic is one of the best-known figures on the political stage of former Yugoslavia and has been prominent in Croatian politics for most of the time since at least 1990, when he became prime minister. It was the move in May 1991 by Milosevic and his allies in the eight-member collective Yugoslav Presidency to block Mesic's assumption of the rotating chair of that body -- a move that would have been routine under normal circumstances -- that triggered the decisions of Croatia and Slovenia to declare independence in June.

Mesic returned to Croatia, where he was a member of President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). In 1994 he broke with Tudjman and the HDZ over the conduct of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and eventually found his political home in the smaller Croatian People's Party (HNS).

When Tudjman died in office at the end of 1999, most Croats were clearly eager to break with a style of rule that was widely seen as paternalistic, pompous, and rooted in the 1991-95 war. Mesic was first elected to the presidency in early 2000 and quickly established himself as Croatia's most respected politician. He adopted a more folksy style than that of his predecessor, whose stiffness was often the butt of jokes.

Mesic also worked to break the power of the "Herzegovinian lobby" in Croatian politics, and there is still little love lost between him and the HDZ in Herzegovina. He has also been at odds with organized war veterans groups, who regard him as insufficiently nationalistic. Mesic and most Croatian political leaders since 2000 have made it clear that they want to put the war era behind them and concentrate on raising the standard of living and on joining the EU and NATO.

In the early years of his presidency, Mesic used the more informal version of his first name, Stipe, although in recent years he has usually gone by Stjepan. In a marked contrast with Tudjman's aloof style, Mesic traveled to the Dalmatian islands with a regularly scheduled ferry rather than with a presidential yacht and drank wine on the docks with fellow passengers.

Although critics have charged in recent years that he has come to mimic the presidential style of the late Josip Broz Tito and has drifted politically too far to the left, he has generally kept the office free of the taint of corruption and nepotism that blemished Tudjman's rule.

The United States is trying to persuade its NATO allies to lift restrictions on the use of force in Afghanistan, U.S. State Department official Daniel Fried said on November 20, according to AFP. Alliance leaders are expected to review the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan at their summit in Riga on November 28-29. Fried said that national restrictions imposed by some countries with troops in Afghanistan have not worked well and should be dropped for the sake of NATO solidarity. He said the debate was initiated due to casualties suffered by Canadian forces in southern Afghanistan this year in tough fighting against the Taliban. "Canadians especially said: 'Wait a minute. How come us? Shouldn't allied solidarity mean that at least countries are going to be standing at our back?' I must say, the Canadians rather have a point," Fried added. RR

Five weeks of relative calm was shattered on November 20 by a land-mine explosion in the Panjawaii district of Kandahar Province that injured two Canadian soldiers, Canadian Press reported. The blast struck along a two-lane highway being built in southern Afghanistan. "As you are probably aware, with all the rain we've had in the past little while, it's not too uncommon to have mines that may have been laid a long time ago or even recently," Canadian Army spokeswoman Karen Johnstone said. "Mines shift around as the mud moves, as embankments collapse -- so it's undetermined to this point as to whether it was new or old, but it certainly seems to fall within the antipersonnel category," she said. RR

The German government said it has no plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to help quell a Taliban insurgency in the south of that country, AFP reported on November 21. Chief government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm denied a report in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" suggesting that Germany is going to contribute troops for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) to work in southern Afghanistan. The same newspaper reported recently that Washington has been pressuring Germany to deploy combat troops in the south. A senior, unnamed U.S. defense official was quoted as saying: "The commanders in Afghanistan should be able to call the Germans in the morning and ask for a battalion to be deployed in the south. And they should be there by the evening." RR

Afghanistan has begun its latest drive to vaccinate millions of children under the age of 5 against the crippling polio virus, officials from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have said, IRNA reported on November 21. The three-day campaign is the fifth this year and was launched on November 19 by the Public Health Ministry, with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, and other partners. Afghanistan, one of just four countries in the world where polio is endemic, has seen the number of people suffering from the disease surge this year. There have been 29 confirmed polio cases in 2006, compared to just nine cases last year, according to the WHO in Kabul. "This is a massive campaign and involves 34,000 volunteers administering drops of polio vaccine to 7.2 million children across the country," UNAMA spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Kabul. RR

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used a meeting with visiting Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on November 21 to denounce alleged Western efforts to dominate other countries, IRNA reported. "However, it is witnessed that the resistance of world nations and independent countries can lead to constant failure of the world arrogance -- particularly the U.S. -- in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and other regions," Khamenei said. He also praised the confiscation of white farmers' land in Zimbabwe. BS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is scheduled to visit Iran on November 25 and Tehran has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join the two leaders for a trilateral summit, Reuters reported on November 21. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on November 20 that such an event would be welcome because Iraq should have good relations with all its neighbors, RFE/RL reported. "While there have been positive statements from the Iranian government about wishing to a play a positive role in Iraq, those statements haven't been backed up by actions," Casey said. "And so very much what we'd like to see the Iranian government do is desist, first and foremost, from negative actions it's taken in Iraq." BS

Ali Asqar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on November 21 in Vienna that Iran intends to build a heavy-water reactor at Arak regardless of the level of assistance from the nuclear watchdog, state radio reported. Iran has requested IAEA technical help in building the facility, while the United States and some other countries oppose such assistance because such reactors produce plutonium, which can be used in weapons. "Even if the IAEA rejects Iran's request for technological assistance, the project to complete the reactor will not stop," Soltanieh said. BS

Grand Ayatollah Mirza Javad Tabrizi has died in Qom, Fars News Agency reported on November 21. The funeral procession will take place in Qom on November 22. The Iranian government has declared a day of national mourning for Tabrizi, who was in his early 80s. BS

The Iranian journalists' guild on November 21 denounced the detention of correspondents who had just arrived at Tehran airport after undergoing training in Holland, Radio Farda reported. The journalists were interrogated for several hours. A hard-line newspaper, "Siyasat-i Ruz," earlier denounced the journalists, and the Aftab website argued that the timing of the arrests signals a new wave of media repression. BS

Tehran prosecutor and press-court Judge Said Mortazavi warned on November 21 that producers of pornographic videos will be put to death and their distributors will be punished severely, state radio reported. An uproar followed news that a video purporting to show intimate scenes of an Iranian television star and her boyfriend is currently available on the Internet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). BS

Iraq and Kuwait agreed on a deal on November 21 that will allow Kuwait to build a fence along the Iraqi border, and on a compensation package to Iraqi farmers who will have to be relocated from the fenced areas, international media reported the same day. "We have signed a deal...after which Kuwait will be able to complete the construction of the security fence," Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khalid al-Jarallah said at a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Haj. UN Security Council Resolution 833 of 1993 demarcated a land border between the two countries and granted Kuwait some territory that was previously held by Iraq. Kuwait began the construction of a 200-kilometer-long barrier along its border with Iraq in 2005, but Iraqi farmers near the town of Umm Qasr tore down sections of the fence, saying it was being erected on their land. Al-Haj said the deal is a suitable "formula to compensate the owners of the land so that both sides would be pleased." Al-Jarallah and al-Haj also discussed the demarcation of maritime borders and the extraction of oil from border oil fields. SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party released a statement on November 19 supporting the November 17 arrest warrant issued by the Iraqi Interior Ministry for Muslim Scholars Association leader Harith al-Dari, "Al-Bayan" reported on November 20. The statement said that the arrest order is justified and falls within the legal framework that all Iraqis are subject to, "regardless of their position or loyalty, particularly when it comes to an influential political leader." In addition, the statement said, "the government is obliged to eliminate any stimulating factors that may foment sedition or provoke internecine fighting among the sons of one people without taking into consideration any other criterion but the country's higher interest and the rule of law." Al-Dari was accused of "inciting terrorism" after he described insurgent attacks on U.S. forces as "legitimate resistance" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). SS

U.S. military officers responsible for training Iraqi forces have reported widespread problems with the training program, "The Washington Post" reported on November 21. In interviews compiled by the U.S. Army's Combat Studies Institute for its oral history archives, officers who have been involved in the training program complained of inadequate preparation and support, unclear objectives, intermittent supply shipments, and a severe lack of Arabic interpreters or some who did not understand English. Major Mike Sullivan, who advised an Iraqi Army battalion in 2004, said, "I went there with the wrong attitude, and I thought I understood Iraq because I had seen PowerPoint slides, but I really didn't." Several officers expressed concern that some Iraqi battalions included insurgents. Major Jeffrey Allen, a senior military adviser to the Iraqi 18th Battalion, said he was personally targeted by insurgents who infiltrated the battalion. "We had insurgents that we detected and arrested in the battalion that were planning an operation against me and my team," he said. Iraqis also had complaints, mainly that junior U.S. officers with no combat experience were counseling senior Iraqi officers who were veterans of several wars. SS

Omani Foreign Minister Yusif bin Alawi bin Abdullah said on November 21 that the United States has handed Iraq to Al-Qaeda, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported the same day. "We have said that American policies in Iraq have handed the nation to Al-Qaeda and the United States' problem there is not the Shi'a, but Al-Qaeda, which has become firmly entrenched there and controls whole areas," he said. Abdullah added that he hopes the United States will rethink its Iraq policies. SS

The World Bank has been invited to open an office in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, according to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's website on November 20. According to informed sources, the World Bank has carried out a needs assessment in the region in an attempt to provide aid to the Kurdish regional government as part of its Iraq aid program. Furthermore, Kurdish officials have called on the bank to deal directly with local authorities, without consulting with the central government. The Kurdish regional minister for planning, Uthman Isma'il Husayn Shwani, said that he has had direct discussions with World Bank representatives who have expressed their desire to cooperate with the regional government. "We have asked the World Bank delegation to help us with empowerment programs for the regional government functionaries and the establishment of development sectors in the field of water and electricity. We also called for the opening of a World Bank office in Irbil," he said. SS